Tuli Made Me a Novelist
One day 9 years ago, more or less, I was driving around the west side of Phoenix, doing my job, visiting teachers and other school employees to help them with their retirement planning. I was driving a crappy white car, dressed in business attire, listening to the classical radio station. An ordinary day that would end up changing the rest of my life.
Several years earlier I spent much of my time writing stories and sending them to literary journals. I was strictly a one-draft guy, typing my work with a Smith-Corona typewriter and mailing it to people like the Rain City Review. I won honorable mention in the Mississippi Review Prize. The Oxford American called my work funny as hell, and asked for rewrites. But when I sent the rewrites back, the editor who asked for them was no longer there, and I was sure he had been fired for liking my work.
I had an enthusiastic audience of baristas and coffeehouse types– I even asked out my future wife on the cover of a short story. But I grew frustrated with the process, and the thanklessness, and meanwhile people started giving me money for painting, and I sold everything I ever painted– mainly large nudes and politically motivated pieces in admiration of Mexican muralists. I always thought I was a better writer than painter, but the universe, I thought, was telling me otherwise.
Driving around on the west side of Phoenix, writing came calling again. It came via the idea of a female character who had sexual relations with men she found pathetic or repulsive. Mercy Fucker.
Why would she do such a thing? I’d have to follow her around in my mind to find out.
I had the idea of writing the story as a screenplay, in part because I was seeing the story like a movie that had already been shot. And I had the conviction that my mind was too disorganized to manage a novel. That may have been true when I walked away from writing in the early half of my thirties, and it may have remained true until I completed my first.
So I followed the character around in my head, writing as I did. She needed a name, and I decided to name her after a flower. Tulips are my favorite, and I had painted them often, but I don’t like the name so well for a woman. So she became Tuli, short for Tulip, and pronounced tooley.
I wrote a good bit of the screenplay before bothering to learn the format. Evidently what I wrote early on was more like a novel about a movie. And learning the format was tricky– writing a screenplay you can only describe what the lens sees and what the microphone hears. The movie industry doesn’t want you to give stage direction, and you cannot say what people are thinking, unless you employ a narrator, which I did not.
It ends up feeling more like presenting what life looks like, without interpreting the meaning for the viewer. The job is largely about deciding what to show and what not to show. I found the format frustrating and limiting initially, but I ended up liking it. And the screenplay was the first thing I wrote entirely on a laptop, and I found it increasingly difficult to do any thinking with a pen in my hand, aside from making notes and organizing the scenes.
I ended with a screenplay that began and ended with the words bon apetit, and which made me laugh and cry. I changed the name from Mercy Fucker, which I never really believed could be on the marquee at the family multi-plex, to Breakfast At Tuli’s.
I learned that finding an audience for a screenplay is not an easy thing. I never actually tried, but the process looked miserable from a distance. By this time I was working largely among the film industry people of Los Angeles, helping them with green investing, so I figured I might eventually run into a producer that I could hand the screenplay off to. I did encounter plenty of producers, but not the right kind. I paid a dear sum of money to have my script evaluated, and received a “consider” rating, which is not an easy thing to get, though it was accompanied by some fabulously bad advice such as the supposed need for a physical obstacle to my protagonist’s happiness. That’s a very American idea of filmmaking, but not really the sort of movies I like to see. I didn’t think having Tuli pilot a speedboat through a wall of flame while in a gunfight with Charles Bronson was right for my story.
I turned away from the script, but would come across it now and then in thick bound stacks of pages in my garage or trunk. I thought of trying to convert it to a novel, and just before the beginning of National Novel Writing Month in November of 2011, I decided I’d give it a shot.
The idea of NaNoWriMo is to produce a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. Since most readers don’t count words, that compares to The Catcher In The Rye’s 73,000 words. The Great Gatsby is almost exactly 50k.
I had something of an advantage over other NaNoWriMo participants in that I already knew how the story went, but it took a different course when I was faced with deciding who would tell the story. The first idea for narrator that came to me was the pet fish that lives in a bowl in Tuli’s living room. That sounded crazy even for me, but I decided to stick with it. And the decision altered the story considerably from the screenplay version. In the screenplay, Fish is an inert pet in a bowl, but he has plenty of personality in the novel, grappling with the hopelessness of his love for Tuli as he waits for her to find happiness with someone else.
Fish’s first words to open the story were the first words I wrote for the novel: Tuli gave hand jobs to strangers, but not for the usual reasons. The story had legs, or fins, and he didn’t stop talking until the story was done.
As most writers who have done NaNoWriMo will attest, it really should be called National Crappy Novel Writing Month, because the best you can really hope for is a very rough “vomit” draft in that period of time. I came up short, having written 42k words by noon on December 1st, wrapping it up at Lux Coffee in Phoenix, Arizona. But the novel was finished, complete, and it would grow to 63k words over the next few months as new material presented itself– a novel can dominate an author’s consciousness so that everything in life is filtered through a sorting mechanism that decides what is suitable for the novel and what is not. The world, and every object and experience, becomes your source material. I also hired an editor and began workshopping it at writer’s groups, which I have come to love.
Ultimately I self-published Breakfast At Tuli’s after 105 agents rejected it. Some agents came very close to repping it, including agents that make too much money to concern themselves with someone like myself. Agents have a different set of concerns than I do, and I’ll keep my talent over someone else’s success. As I am fond of saying, there are a lot of ways to get rich–none of which I have figured out yet–but there aren’t many ways to make you feel the way you do when you give birth to a story that some people will connect with deeply.
I don’t profess to understand Tuli or any of my characters completely. Some writers think that I am a fool to say that, and suggest that I cannot write a story without first understanding my characters fully. But I think they show me as much as they want to show me, like anyone else I might meet. They are not so much my creation as beings introduced to me by the muse, and they can be as private and mysterious as people in the “real” world. I can only watch and guess what goes on in their minds.
And Tuli– beautiful, complicated, a little damaged, so generous, and not in the way you’re thinking– is someone I feel privileged to have met. I feel like I could fly a plane, take a train. walk a few blocks and be looking up at her apartment. I have now written 3 1/2 novels in 3 years, and there are other protagonists I have come to love as much as Tuli. But Tuli was the first. And Tuli made me a novelist.
Paul Mosier is the author of the novel Breakfast At Tuli’s, available on Amazon and elsewhere in the online retail world. It can also be found at Stinkweed’s, The BookShop AZ, Changing Hands, The Bee’s Knees, and other Phoenix area retailers. The novel Genre and the middle grade novel Story Girl: an all-ages show are expected to be available in 2015.
Paul lives a short walk from his place of birth in downtown Phoenix, Arizona. He is married and has two adorable daughters who often influence his writing. He has made half of a modest living as an artist, and is the founder of a green investing company. Follow the progress of his work on the facebook page, Novelist Paul Mosier’s Fabulous Lies, here:
You can purchase Breakfast At Tuli’s, read reviews, and watch for future available work here: